Fort Eben-Emael


First proposed in 1887 when General Brialmont advised the Belgium government to build this fort. Nothing was done until 1932 when it was ordered by the Belgium Government. Belgium decided to strengthen its defence. Built in 1932-1935 this fort was considered to be impossible to capture and the last word of the modern fortifications. Even the French Commander-in-chief General Gamelin counted upon the fort of Eben-Emael and hoped that it would hold out at least 5 days. The fort was part of the outer half circle around the city Liège which was the commanding place of the defence in the East of Belgium. Liège had 8 forts in an inner circle to defend the city: it had originally 12 forts, but 4 forts were completely destroyed during World War I (1914-1918). The outer circle had four forts.

During the period between the two World Wars Belgium and the Netherlands had a policy of strict neutrality. First Belgium wanted to equip the fort of Eben-Emael with a longer range of fire, but these would be able to shoot at Aachen (D) and that could be considered by the Germans as a non-neutral attitude. Therefore the heaviest guns were reduced to the calibre of 120 mm with a maximum range of 17-17.5 km. So it could not reach over the border with Germany.

Description of the fort.

Dug out in a limestone hill the fort has galleries and bunkers or copulas. It consists of a triangle (triangle-base: 800-meter, triangle-height: 900 meter) with a surface of 45 HA. In the north-east lies the 65-meter-deep cutting of the Albert-canal. The fort has two levels:

Level 0: the ground floor (45 m below the superstructure) with the barracks which could house up to 1200 soldiers. Level 1: the intermediate level (25 m below the superstructure) with a system of 5 km tunnels joining together all the bunkers of the fortress.

On the superstructure you will discover the bunkers and steel cupolas. These are connected to the first level by stairways which have heights between 18 en 24 meter depending upon the location on the superstructure.

The connection between level 0 en level 1 consists of two stairways and one elevator.

Description of the ground floor.

The ground floor is called level 0: approximate 45 meter below the superstructure. The entrance is on the west-side, in the valley of the Jeker (a small river), and is called “Bloc I”. Directly behind the entrance there is a removable wooden bridge. On the left behind the wooden bridge are the heavy armoured doors of Block I, to the right the door of the disinfection-room. Behind the wooden bridge straight on is another armoured door with a machine gun on the left: the main entrance of the fort. So, there are two ways to enter the fort in a normal way:

Once entered the main entrance a gallery of 200 meter starts in direction east. The first part of the gallery is the “roll-call” place: on the left side are stripes and in between the names of the bunkers painted on the wall. Along this gallery there are the rooms of the armourers, the toilets, the prison (“Cachot”) and the oil-tanks. Before the light bend to the left of the gallery there is the electrical power-plant. Here there were 6 Diesel-engines of 140kW (electrical power) each. The cooling water was used for the central heating and for the showers (heat exchanger!).

Further along this gallery we find the showers and washrooms, the door to the chimney, the two kitchens (one for the soldiers, one for the officers) with store-rooms and the commander’s room (to be exactly two rooms: his office and bed-room). Now we arrive at the intersection. To the left is the hospital with three small rooms and one sick-room with eight beds. To the right is another gallery with on both sides the bedrooms of the officers and non-commissioned officers. It leads to the big central stairs (21 meter) and the elevator. Before you can enter the central stairs or elevator you have to pass the lock-gate (poisonous gas attacks!). It consists of four armoured doors and in between is the entrance to the ventilation installation and the machinery of the elevator. In the same gallery before the lock-gate there is a gallery to the left: the underground barracks of the soldiers. 24 rooms with double beds, lockers, eating-tables and benches.

Back to the intersection we resume our way to the east and find ahead an other lock-gate. Behind these 4 armoured doors are the “small” stairs (11 meter). Just before we enter the lock-gate we will see on the right side the water pump. It reaches approximately 12 meter deep and has 6 meter of clean water. After passing the lock-gate we find on top of the small stairs on the right side a room. This room contains the four water tanks of the fort. Each water tank can hold 2500 lt drinkable water.

Around the outline of the whole complex of the ground level are galleries, the so-called marl-galleries. These are not covered with concrete and they served to evacuate the used air of the rooms in the barracks and the kitchen-vapours. These marl-galleries come together with the exhausts of the engine-room and go to the chimney.

The German plans around Eben-Emael.

The German 6th Army’s (General von Reichenau) task was to depart from the line Aachen (D)-Venlo (NL) to rapidly cross the river Meuse and to break through the Belgian defence-lines as soon as possible. General direction of attack: Tienen (B).

The intention was to bind the allied armies in Mid-Belgium as a tactical condition for the big break-through of the Sedan (F)-Abbeville (F) offensive. The left boundary of its attack area was the southern border of Dutch Limbourg. The plans for the area around Eben-Emael were made by Hitler himself. For these plans were employed:

“Battaillon zur besondern Verwendung 100” of the “Abwehr”

“Sturmabteilung Koch” of the 7th “Flieger-Division”

The Infantry Regiment 151 re-enforced by the motorised “Pioneer-Battaillon 51”

The 4th “Panzer-Division”

Flying units of the “VIII Fliegerkorps”

The targets of the plans were respectively:

  To take the 3 Meuse-bridges in Maastricht (NL) undamaged.

  To take the bridges of Veldwezelt (B), Vroenhoven (B) and Kanne (B) undamaged and to silence the fort of Eben-Emael

  To relief the man on the fort and conquer the fort

  Forming and enlarging the bridgeheads at Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven and Kanne

  Air support

As the bridges of Maastricht could not be taken from the air, the “Battaillon zur besonderen Verwendung 100” was used for that. The action plan consisted of three parts:

Men in civilian clothes were already in Maastricht before 8 May 1940 or came over the border on 9 May where they got bicycles at Voerendaal (NL) and cycled to Maastricht. They had to put the ignition of the explosives of the bridges out of order. “Sonderverband Hocke” (a company of motorcyclists and cyclists) disguised in uniforms of the Netherlands Military Police came during the night of the 9th to the 10th of May near Sittard (NL) over the border and advanced to Maastricht. They had to take over the task of the men in civilian clothes in case these were unsuccessful and then wait for the motorised armoured unit. A motorised armoured unit would pass the border near Sittard in the early morning of 10 May and cross the advance-direction of the German Divisions march rapidly on Maastricht and occupy the bridges.

Around 10 o’clock the 4th armoured Division would be at Maastricht. As the bridges at Veldwezelt, Vroenhoven and Kanne and the fort Eben-Emael due to the Belgian preparations never could be reached with orthodox methods or conventional weapons not even with parachutists the Germans developed new methods and weapons!

The most important points on which the plan of the German attack was based were:

  SURPRISE: therefore the utmost secrecy was necessary

  NEW STRIKE METHODS: to get the pioneers there with gliders

  NEW STRIKE WEAPON: the shaped charge

On the night of 9/10 May 1940 at 04.25 hours 9 gliders with their crew of 7-8 men landed on the superstructure of the fort. Each group had its own objective and in 15 minutes most of the artillery shooting in the north direction were destroyed capturing about 1000 Belgian soldiers in the tunnels of the fort.

On Saturday 11 May 1940 at 11.30 all resistance was broken down and the fort surrendered. On the Belgian side there were 24 dead and on the German side 6 dead.

The execution of the German Plans.

After half a year of rigorous isolation, the order came as a liberation on the 9th of May 1940. The “Sturmabteilung” Koch went to the airfields near Köln (Cologne). The take-off was on Friday the 10th of May at 3.30 A.M. Belgium Time (which is 4.30 A.M German Time) in the darkness of the night. The landing was planned at 04.25 A.M. (Belgium Time).

The bridges of Maastricht were blown up by the Dutch Army around 7.00 A.M and delayed the ground-forces in that area for more then 20 hours. The bridges of Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven were taken undamaged by the men of “Stahl” and “Beton”. The bridge of Kanne was blown up and the men of “Eisen” gave a rough battle with the Belgian Grenadiers who were positioned in trenches by the bridge. The Pioneer-bataillon 51 could not cross the canal to relieve the men on Fort Eben-Emael. They tried to cross over in rubber dinghies but came under heavy fire from Block Canal-North (“CN”).

Out of the 11 gliders planned for Eben-Emael only 9 landed on the fort. The cable of Lt. Witzig’s (Commander of “Granit”) glider broke near Köln while taking an evasive action to avoid another plane. Witzig himself arranged a new take-off somewhere near the Rhine with a Ju-52 fitted with a new cable and new wheels for the glider. His glider landed at 6.30 A.M. on the fort. The other glider was detached to early and landed near Düren (D). These men advanced with the ground-forces to the border and forced their way to Eben-Emael.

The anti-aircraft defence of the fort was silenced at once and in the first 10 minutes the following bunkers or cupolas were attacked or taken:

Casemate Maastricht 1 (taken)

Casemate Maastricht 2 (taken

Machine-gun bunker MiS (taken)

Machine-gun bunker MiN (taken)

Cupola North (attacked and neutralized)

Cupola South (attacked but not neutralized)

Block IV (only the observer neutralized)

Note: At first Cupola 120 was only attacked by throwing explosives in the barrels because the glider foreseen for this target landed too early in Düren (D). Later on the Germans used a shaped charge but could not destroy the cupola. Anyway the barrels were out of use.

It was the shaped charge that caused the fast elimination of the fort’s guns and bunkers and until now it was the most successful pioneer-air-raid that is known in the history of wars.

In the morning there were a few counterattacks by the Belgians, but after some firing from the Germans they disappeared rapidly. Later on the men of Granit were fired at by the artillery of the fort Pontisse (1000 grenades of 105 mm) and fort Barchon (40 grenades of 150mm). However this firing also prevented counterattacks by the Belgian infantry-men of the field-army in sector Eben-Emael.

In the Casemates Maastricht 1 and 2 the Germans set fire to shaped charges at 20 meters deep to prevent a counterattack from Belgian artillerymen in the fort. They also destroyed the stairs of the machine-gun bunkers.

Only Casemate Visé 2 and 1 (only a few hours), Cupola South and Observer Eben 1 were active on the superstructure until the surrender the next day. These two bunkers (“Vi2” and “CpS”) fired at the Canal on Lanaye (B) and Eysden (NL) because the German troops tried to cross the river and the Canal. Observer Eben 1 could give the precise positions of the Germans to the fire-control. Also active were the bunkers Canal North and South who fired at the Germans who were crossing the Canal.

During the attack no poisoned gas was used! However most of the Belgian artillerymen had problems with the ventilation because of the gun smoke.  The German ground-troops who arrived 26 hours later as planned attacked the remaining blocks which still were firing. On top of the fort the German pioneers made at last contact and felt relieved. The fort surrendered on Saturday the 11th May 1940 because it could not hold any longer the pressure of the German attacks. Most of the Belgian soldiers of the fort had lost their faith to withstand this superior enemy who used new weapons and co-operated with the air-force to accomplish only one goal: victory!

The Surrender.

Saturday 11th May the Germans were about to break through into the galleries of the fort. Three German soldiers came down in Casemate 1 and opened the door downstairs and hoped to have entrance to the labyrinth of the fort. They saw a steel beam barricade. Without hesitation a shaped charge was placed against the steel barricade. They set fire to the fuse and ran upstairs and climbed out of the casemate. At 8.18 AM a dreadful explosion destroyed the barricade of the Casemate Maastricht 1 and was the turning point in the defence of Fort Eben-Emael. A huge shock wave and hot explosion-gasses mixed with vaporized steel travelled through the galleries, burned the concrete walls black and the morale of the defenders dropped to an absolute depth.

Just 80 meters further away and downstairs were the barracks! The explosion was felt everywhere in the fort. Soldiers were blown against the walls, the air was poisoned by the explosion gasses and there was no light in the galleries! It was terrible to hear the screaming of the wounded in the total darkness. Soldiers in the galleries who survived the hot explosion-gasses came screaming down the stairs, mostly horrible burned, and made an indelible impression to everyone. Now everybody in the barracks was calling to surrender. With the threat of the Germans who were now believed to be in the galleries with their dreadful weapon the officers could not withstand any longer the possibility of surrender. At 11.15 AM one officer, a trumpeter and a soldier who held the white flag made their way to Blok I. Because of the heavy bombing and firing they could not contact the Germans. After the second attempt they made contact with the German ground troops and without any conditions they surrendered to the Germans. It was 12.30 PM when the fort surrendered and the artillerymen walked into captivity for four years.

The total lost of the men of fort Eben-Emael was 24 and 62 were wounded. At the German side (only those who landed) the losses were 6 and 15 wounded. Regarding the strength of the fort the German operation to attack the fort was a complete success. The first air-borne attack of the world was a fact.  If they had attacked the fort with ground troops, the losses for the Germans would be enormous! As an example the fort Aubin-Neufchateau was attacked in such manner and the German losses were considerable.